This article is part of GMA's Viewpoints catalog, a grouping of opinion pieces from the GMA magazine, speeches and other editorials.
Text of Gov. Brian Kemp's State of the State address delivered on January 16, 2020.
Lt. Governor Duncan, Speaker Ralston, Mayor Bottoms, Governor and Mrs. Deal, President Pro Tem Miller, Speaker Pro Tem Jones and members of the General Assembly, constitutional officers, members of the Judiciary, members of the consular corps, and my fellow Georgians: During my first State of the State address, I spoke about the wise builder who put his house on a sure foundation. The rain and winds came. The flood waters rose, and the house stood firm. I tipped my hat to Governor Deal and the lawmakers who came before me - those who poured the concrete and laid the footings, hardworking Georgians who left this place better than they found it.
One year ago, I urged those in this room - in this historic space - to join me in building a safer, stronger, and more prosperous state - a state where small businesses are empowered to grow, invest, and thrive, where government is responsive and effective - a state where healthcare is affordable, accessible and where the rights of the unborn are protected. I asked lawmakers – both Republicans and Democrats – to join me in the fight for Georgia’s future - to crack down on gangs and sex trafficking, to invest in education and our educators, to stand up for our values and those we value, to put politics and partisanship behind us, and to unite for the greater good. Over the last twelve months, we have realized incredible success and endured hardships. We have seen the fruits of our labor, and we have seen the power of God’s Providence.
In 2019, we stood together on the construction site, building on a sure foundation. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. But there’s still more work to be done. As your Governor, I have been honored to travel this great state, and everywhere I go, I start by saying the same thing: “It is a great time to be a Georgian, don’t you agree?"
Right now, our unemployment rate is 3.3 percent. That’s the lowest in Georgia history. We have a record number of hardworking Georgians in the workforce. Our state is the No. 1 place for business for the seventh year in a row. During the past twelve months since I addressed this joint session, we have added over 64,000 private sector jobs. Of the 371 economic development projects announced by the state in 2019, 79 percent were outside of Atlanta in communities like Cairo, Cartersville, and Commerce, creating economic opportunity – no matter your zip code. The State of the State is strong, and folks, we are just getting started.
I was raised to work hard. I know that my mom, who is in the gallery today, remembers driving me around with a push-mower in the trunk of her red Buick LeSabre, which we nick-named the “Red Dawg.” I had a bunch of odd jobs growing up, but construction is the one that stuck. There’s something about the process that drew me in. Every step is important. Every moment matters. I started with a pick-up truck and a shovel, digging ditches, pouring concrete, and hammering nails.
Over the years, I’ve built homes, apartments, light commercial, multi-use. I volunteered on Habitat houses, remodeled the Rape Crisis Center in Athens, and even built my own home where we live today. But I’ll be honest: I’m proudest of what we are building right now. Under this Gold Dome, we have framed the house with strong Georgia Grown lumber cut in a local sawmill brought to the job site.
In year two, it’s time to set our sights on the sheet rock, the siding, and the bricks. Each side of the structure will protect those on the inside by providing an environment ripe for learning, opportunity, and growth. Every window looks to the future, a door that welcomes those in need, and those who want to help.
While Republicans and Democrats disagree often, we all know the value of a good education. We know the impact that a teacher can have on a student. We know that learning has the power to lift people out of poverty, and help many realize their full, God-given potential. As we move forward as a state, we must re-affirm our commitment to Georgia’s schools; trust parents to make decisions in the best interests of their children; and support our superintendents, teachers, counselors, and specialists as they work to educate and inspire the next generation.
I want to applaud Governor Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal, who join us in the gallery, for fully-funding Quality Basic Education and investing in early learning for Georgia students. I also want to thank this legislature for working together to champion education during the 2019 session. Together, we fully-funded QBE for the second year in a row. We provided over $69 million in school security grants for all 2,314 schools. We increased funding for mental health services in our high schools, and we gave educators a long overdue – and historic – pay raise!
I’m so proud of our teachers and school leaders for what they do on a daily basis. And while we spend a lot of time honoring athletes and elected officials, these are the public servants who really deserve the credit.
Joining us today in the gallery are two hardworking Georgians who deserve all the accolades and applause that we can muster.
Mrs. Samantha Fuhrey of Newton County is Georgia's Superintendent of the Year for 2020, and Mrs. Tracey Pendley of Atlanta Public Schools is our 2020 Georgia Teacher of the Year. Please join me in saying, “Thank You!”\
To truly honor their service, we have some work to do in the days ahead. Let’s fully fund public school education for the third year in a row, accounting for growth and resources needed to properly educate. Let’s dismantle the remnants of Common Core, reduce the number of required tests, and give teachers the opportunity to actually do what they do best - teach. And finally, let’s give our educators another well-deserved pay raise!
In my budget, I have included a $2,000 pay raise for all public school educators. This raise will enhance retention rates, boost recruitment numbers, and improve educational outcomes in schools throughout Georgia. By investing in our educators, we can build a strong house, a place where everyone learns and all Georgians have the opportunity to thrive.
As the father of three, I know that a healthy home is a happy home! The same is true in our state. While we are the hub for job creation and business growth, we also live in a state where many hardworking Georgians can’t access quality healthcare. Premiums are too high, and many families have to compromise coverage because of the costs.
Empowered by the Patients First Act, we crafted Georgia-centric healthcare solutions to lower healthcare costs, reduce insurance premiums, enhance access to top-notch care, and ultimately, improve health outcomes for Georgia families. For nine months, we developed two unique and innovative healthcare programs that meet the needs of hardworking Georgians, keep our budget balanced, and reflect our values and vision as a state. These proposals, Georgia Access and Georgia Pathways, shake up the status quo and put patients first - not the special interests.
While these reforms will provide a new pathway for 408,000 Georgians to access affordable care and lower insurance premiums for millions more, this is only the beginning. We have friends and neighbors who need our help, so we must Keep Choppin’!
Right now, there are countless families who just received a surprise medical bill in the mail - an "out of network" specialist, a procedure that wasn’t approved or covered, nights in the hospital that didn’t meet the requirements. We have hardworking Georgians who, by no fault of their own, are on the brink of bankruptcy because there’s no transparency in healthcare billing. Families are living on a prayer because the system is rigged against them.
This year, we will implement long overdue reforms that put our families first. Working with patients, providers, and the private sector, we’ll craft a legislative remedy to reduce surprise medical billing. We will demand transparency, embrace empathy, and insist on fairness. We will take care of each other in sickness and in health.
Now, I know that reform – especially in healthcare – is daunting. And while the road ahead is long, there are plenty of men and women who have gone before us; bold leaders and public servants who blazed a trail and set a standard for countless Georgians to follow.
One of those people is Senator Johnny Isakson. A pioneer of the Georgia Republican Party, Johnny Isakson is a man of character and incredible determination. He served under this Gold Dome in the Georgia General Assembly, Chaired the State Board of Education, and went on to represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. Capitol. For 15 years, Johnny Isakson was our U.S. Senator. He is a gentleman, a statesman, and a true patriot.
Like you, I was incredibly saddened when Johnny announced that he had Parkinson’s disease, and again, when he called to announce his retirement from the Senate. While I am confident that Senator Kelly Loeffler will do an incredible job representing our state and our best interests, we are losing a giant in Washington. I’ve heard it said that words matter, but actions mean more.
That’s why today, I want to take another step in honoring Johnny Isakson’s service. Right now, over 20,000 Georgians are living with Parkinson’s disease – with new patients diagnosed every single day. While treatable, Parkinson’s disease has no cure. I don’t know about you, but I want to change that.
Thanks to the leadership of President Jere Morehead, we are creating a Johnny Isakson Professorship for Parkinson’s Research at the University of Georgia. Once recruited, this PhD researcher will develop better treatments for patients like Johnny, better medicine, and a better quality of life. Through this partnership, we will use technology and innovation to break new ground. With the grit and resolve of Johnny Isakson, we will move one step closer to a cure.
Our house here in Georgia will be a healthy one with a big, framed photo of Johnny right on the wall. Our children and grandchildren will walk past and ask about the statesmen pictured. His story is Georgia’s story. His legacy will live on for generations to come. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming and honoring one of Georgia’s finest, Senator Johnny Isakson. Thank you, Senator!
While Georgia is experiencing historic growth, we have a statewide threat that undermines our safety and our future. Criminal street gangs continue to grow in size and scope, impacting every county in every part of our state. These organized crime units are flooding our streets with weapons, drugs, violence, and fear. They are ripping apart the fabric of our communities. They are eroding the foundations of our families.
This year, we launched the Anti-Gang Task Force at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Under the bold leadership of Director Vic Reynolds, we are partnering with local law enforcement and prosecutors to “stop and dismantle” gangs throughout Georgia. We are providing the resources and training needed to put these dangerous criminals behind bars. We are working around the clock to keep our neighborhoods safe.
While Georgia already has tough gang statutes on the books, there’s more we can do to stop violence from taking over our state. There’s more we can do to prevent another innocent person from being shot, another law enforcement officer from being killed.
While some in the media refuse to acknowledge our gang crisis, I don’t have to convince Deborah Rider. A decade ago, Deborah’s son, Nicholas, was sleeping in his room when gunshots ripped through the walls. A drive-by shooting organized by a local gang left Nicholas dead at the age of 10. Deborah, we are sorry for your loss, and while we can’t bring Nicholas back, we will champion tough anti-gang legislation in his honor. This session, we will empower law enforcement and prosecutors, so these people will get the justice that they deserve. We will work around the clock to prevent this tragedy from happening to another family - to another Nicholas - in our state. We will do our part to make this right. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in applauding Deborah’s service and honoring her son’s life.
Gangs and drug cartels are fueling another public safety crisis. Every day, hundreds of people are bought and sold for sex in our state. Traffickers use Atlanta as a hub, trading human life like it’s a commodity.
Shortly after taking office, we created the GRACE Commission to help coordinate efforts to end modern-day slavery in our state. Under the leadership of our First Lady Marty Kemp, the GRACE Commission has worked to raise awareness. They’ve partnered with elected officials, law enforcement, non-profit organizations, and those who have been in the trenches for years fighting human trafficking. They have traveled the state to sound the alarm and urge action.
During this time, Marty has met some incredible people, inspirational Georgians who have devoted their lives to helping others. Today in the gallery, we are honored to have Katie, Shemeka, and Nikki. Sadly, these women have something in common. They were trafficked as kids, robbed of their innocence and childhood, forced to see and experience things that we can’t even imagine. But these women are survivors. They’re fighters and powerful advocates who are working to turn Georgia into a safe haven for those who have no voice, who exist in the shadows, who need an ally to shine a light into the darkness.
Members of the House and Senate, we’re once again asking for your help to win this fight against human trafficking. We must advance legislation this session that closes loopholes that leave children vulnerable to exploitation. We must help victims tell their story in the courtroom without fear of retaliation. We must support survivors who want to enter the workforce but still bear the scars of the past. The house we are building will be safe and secure, and we will not stop working until it is. Please join me in applauding the bravery of those in the gallery, and join me in thanking Marty, Jarrett, Lucy, Amy Porter, and members of the GRACE Commission. They are raising awareness and the state and country is taking notice. We are so proud of you!
We are a blessed people - Americans who proudly live in our nation’s greatest state. But what makes us great is not just what we produce on the farm or in factories. We are great because of who we respect and what we value. During debate on the heartbeat bill, I would always start with a simple statement: Georgia is a state that values life. Honestly, it’s hard to disagree with that. We live in a place where every person matters - young or old, rich or poor, any race from any place.
As a pro-life Governor, I believe that we need to protect the unborn and the born. We have to defend those in the womb and then champion those when they leave the delivery room. It’s incredibly sad how many children are abandoned in our hospitals - hundreds every year - living, breathing babies - discarded, forgotten, innocent, and full of potential - now wards of the state.
Over the years, the General Assembly and Governor Deal made incredible progress in updating our adoption laws in Georgia. It’s now time to build on those efforts. First, we will triple the adoption tax credit from $2,000 to $6,000 to help new parents offset the incredible costs of adoption. We will lower the adoption age from 25 to 21 so more qualified Georgians can adopt and more children can be placed. Finally, we will launch the Families First Commission so we can begin to change the way our state’s foster care system operates and serves the most vulnerable among us. Our goal is simple: to keep our kids safe, to encourage adoption, and ensure that every young Georgian - no matter where they live - has the opportunity to live in a safe, happy, loving home.
In closing, I want to tell you another Bible story about a builder - a man of the Old Testament who took on a massive construction project. You see, Nehemiah learned that his hometown was in ruin. The city gate was destroyed. The people were in turmoil. With a blessing from the King, he traveled back and started building. He shook up the status quo. He brought hope to a hopeless place.
There were distractions along the way, those who wanted to slow his progress, some who wanted Nehemiah – and his building project – to fail. But he had a calling, a clear desire, a goal to build, restore, and revive. When the opposition came calling, he always delivered the same message. There was pressure and prodding but Nehemiah responded, “I am doing a great work and can’t come down.” He refused to leave the job site until his project was done. He refused to let division divide his attention on the task at hand.
Like Nehemiah, we are doing a great work right here in Georgia. We have a construction project that demands our attention. We have people who are counting on us to get the job done. So, let’s put politics aside and build a state where we invest in education. Let’s build a state where we lower healthcare costs and improve access for patients. Let’s shake up the status quo and build a state that’s safe - where gangs and sex traffickers want to leave and families want to stay. Let’s live out our values and build a state that gives all Georgians the opportunity to live, grow, and prosper. A house where all are free to realize their full, God-given potential.
It's 2020, folks, and it’s a year for building. Pick up a hammer and keep working until the project is complete! We are doing a great work, so we can’t stop choppin’! Thank you, may God bless you, and may God bless this great State of Georgia!